The West Block – Episode 15, Season 12

Mercedes Stephenson, The West Block. Global News


Episode 15, Season 12

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson

Journalist Panel:

David Akin, Chief Political Correspondent

Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent 


Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister 


Ottawa, ON


Mercedes Stephenson: Counting down the biggest political stories of the year, plus what to expect in 2023. And, a look back at our biggest international story: Russia’s war in Ukraine.

I’m Mercedes Stephenson and it’s Christmas Day. Welcome to The West Block.

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From convoy blockades, to the Conservative leadership race, to Canadians struggling with soaring inflation, it’s been a tumultuous year in national politics. Our annual politics panel weighs in.

And what will it take to end the war in Ukraine? Ukraine’s deputy prime minister says Western allies need to do more. We revisit that conversation.

It is time for one of my favourite segments that we do every year. It’s our year-end and year look ahead panel with our political correspondents who give us the behind the scenes look on what actually happened covering some of the biggest stories of the year and some of the insight that we don’t always get from those politicians interviews or the two minute packs that we do on the news. We’re being joined by Amanda Connolly, who is our breaking news and politics managing editor for online; Mackenzie Gray, one of our Global National correspondents; and of course, David Akin, a veteran of this panel, who is our chief political correspondent.

Mack, the year started out with a bit of a bang, or a honk, depending on how you look at it, for those of us here in Ottawa. The convoy, which we all remember very well, you were in the thick of it. When we were talking about big stories for the year that we were looking back on, this was immediately the one you mentioned. Why did you choose that one?

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: Because it’s not just something that’s impacted Canadians here or folks in Ottawa, but this was something that people around the world were paying attention to. Everyone was wondering what was going on here on Wellington Street and what was going on in Canada with these truckers and there were a lot of things happening. We saw various levels of government really drop the ball, particularly the Ottawa municipal government, the police, even the province, too, really not stepping in when they were required to be able to help the situation out, and that’s why the government says they need to bring the Emergencies Act in. We’ll see what Justice Rouleau’s report and whether or not that was an important thing to do. But the political ramifications of it saw Erin O’Toole out and Pierre Poilievre come in.

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Mercedes Stephenson: David Akin, you know, the convoy is over and while they’re talking about maybe doing another one, that’s sort of very—I don’t think the Ottawa Police will ever make perhaps the same mistakes they did there. But the concerns about sort of the political environment and the division that it created are still very much alive.

David Akin, Chief Political Correspondent: Yeah, and I mean, to make it story of the year, it started the year don’t forget and kind of finished the year with the commission, which was fascinating looking inside. Everybody’s fascinated to see if that convoy, let’s say, mood, carries on into infect or flavour our politics, depending on your point of view. But clearly, one leader, Pierre Poilievre was associated in support of the convoy. Is it a feature? Is it a bug? That’s a question still out there.

I like the Pierre Poilievre story as the story of the year for me, because regardless of that, the way he and his party are now doing politics could have some important impacts on all parties. First of all, he became leader by harnessing a lot of people who have never gotten involved in politics before, younger people. People who were angry, but they got involved in that campaign. Can he move those people now to vote in the general election? Big question, because that is the holy grail for all parties.

Two, the stuff he’s done after the election, really the party machinery needed to be modernized, the plumbing of the party. They’d lost two elections, even though they won the popular vote in two elections, because the Liberals chiefly are way better using computerized systems to identify voters and win specific ridings. It’s been the Liberal secret sauce. So, Poilievre has spent millions or is spending millions of dollars to overhaul this computer database. They’re overhauling their fundraising. If that’s done right, that will pay bigger benefits than the choice of leader. Without being able to match the Liberals on their computerized get out the vote stuff, they’re not going to win an election.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And we did ask for Mr. Poilievre on the show for viewers who were wondering. We had Mr. Singh on the show. Mr. Trudeau did a year-end interview. It will air later with our chief anchor, Dawna Friesen. Mr. Poilievre’s team didn’t get back to us. We continue to hope that he will come on the show, but for folks who were wondering, we do give equal opportunities to all leaders.

Amanda, coming out of the protest here in Ottawa and that blockade that we saw, and this sort of change in the Conservative Party in politics, we also saw a huge change in the foreign policy of Canada and the change of all of our allies as well because there is something unprecedented in my lifetime, I think, and that’s a land war in Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It changed a lot in Canadian politics and Canadian political discussions. It’s not just something that’s over there.

Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, there is a huge number of Ukrainian Canadians who live here, the diaspora, very vibrant, very strong here in Canada. But again, looking at the interest here that Canada has in this conflict, it might not have been readily apparent for a lot of Canadians at the beginning. It’s very clear not because what this really was, this was not just an invasion of Ukraine. This was a challenge to the global international roles order and Canada as really a middle power without the size of some other allies with the U.S., relies fundamentally on that order to be able to protect our own interests, to be able to engage in a stable way with allies and partners. And so there really was a vested state to the threat to the security of Canada here and that the government has certainly been acting on that.

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David Akin, Chief Political Correspondent: You mentioned the number of Ukrainians and I did run some numbers electorally. I’m interested and that’s Shannon Stubbs’ riding just west—or just east of Edmonton, now Lakeland. Twenty-five per cent of her constituents are Ukrainian. That’s where the big Pysanka is, if you want to go visit that. But there is such a stretch of riding, starting in Winnipeg going all the way up to Winnipeg, the bread basket, where you have 10 to 25 per cent are Ukrainians. It’s a big deal for a lot of voters.

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: And one of the features I think this year overarching, if you’re looking at politics, was division. We saw this with the convoy and a lot of other issues. This was one issue that everyone agreed on. There’s been widespread support from all parties from what the government’s been doing to support Ukraine, which I think is an important thing to mention in a divisive year.

Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: How often do you see unity in Canadian politics, right? And we saw this invasion here. This is one of the rare issues, really. I think Mack is right, where you really do see this broad spectrum support and recognition of the threat and the vital existential almost need to act on this and to do it in a unified manner.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And remarkable, too, in what we saw happening in Ukraine because everyone was predicting maybe 72 hours and Russian troops would be rolling through Kyiv. I was there in February and March and the resilience is incredible and it maintains to this day as Ukrainians face a very difficult winter. It’s cold here in Canada. We all have heat. We don’t have to wonder if we’re going to have power. That’s not the case for people in Ukraine and we certainly keep them in our thoughts. It’s not the only challenge to international order. Mack, you worked a lot on the story about China and the government in Beijing attempting to interfere in Canadian democracy, concerns about Chinese-Canadian citizens being harassed here. Where do you see that story going?

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: Well there are a lot of different angles in terms of what the government’s going to do. I was with the prime minister when he travelled to Asia, putting his new Indo-Pacific strategy into place. They put billions of dollars on the line there. But really we heard from a lot of the allies that we visited when we went to those different countries that Canada’s really been a Johnny come lately in Asia, and if they want to execute their strategy which is we’re going to try and isolate China and we’re going to make more friends with those countries there, they really need to show up there. They’re trying to do that now. I think one thing kind of relating to the foreign interference story, is we’re likely going to see the Liberals bring in some kind of foreign registry of agents at some point in time. We’ve seen the U.S. do that, the Australians have done that. The U.K’s looking at that. That’s the big thing that I think from a government perspective we’ll see them be doing in the new year.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Amanda, the tone and tenor of Canadian politics is something that I’m expecting we’re going to hear a lot more about in 2023 and I know it’s something you’ve been paying attention to.

Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: Yeah, really, of course, you know working primary online, you really do so kind of the raw end of a lot of this coming in with social media and that. There’s a lot of anger, really and again, I think we’ve heard kind of over the past year here, a reflection of the fact that a lot of that is generational anger. It’s young people. It’s millennials, Gen Z, Canadians who are young who are trying to kind of come up and make their way in life and are looking at the situation that they’ve been dealt and saying this doesn’t seem fair. This doesn’t seem right. Maybe my parents or grandparents had an easier way of it. They’re looking at housing. They’re looking at inflation, food costs; the health care system kind of collapsing before our very eyes right now, right? These are major issues that kind of speak to that fundamental sense of stability and certainty that young people are looking for when they try and chart the course of their lives. That’s not there right now and I think that we’re going to see that really breaking free a lot in 2023 with the frustration and anger.

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: That was the anger, though, Mercedes that Pierre Poilievre really capitalized on. If I’m Justin Trudeau, I’m looking at the situation right now. We’re seeing inflation’s high but it’s starting to come down a little bit. House prices were high. They’re starting to come down a little bit. Pierre Poilievre needs that anger and discontent…

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Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: Absolutely.

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: If he’s going to continue to well in the House of Commons.

Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: Absolutely.

Mercedes Stephenson: I have to ask the perennial question that we all love to ask each other in Canadian politics. Could there be an election? There is the NDP-Liberal deal, but Jagmeet Singh has been hinting about potentially pulling his support over health care. What do you think the chances are, Mack, of an election in 2023?  

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: I’ve talked to some senior Liberals who think there certainly is an opportunity later in the year for one to happen. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be Jagmeet Singh pulling the cord on it. The NDP don’t have as much money. Does he have the popularity right now to go to the polls? I’m not sure about that. But one thing I am confident about, Justin Trudeau’s going to stick around. Will Chrystia Freeland be there for the next election? I don’t think so.

Mercedes Stephenson: Oooh, that’s a…that’s a bold prediction.

David Akin, Chief Political Correspondent: Can you say Finance Minister Charles Sousa just elected in Mississauga—Lakeshore? 

Mackenzie Gray, Parliamentary Correspondent: Yeah.

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Mercedes Stephenson: So David, you know, if there is this election, Justin Trudeau goes again; he wants to go up against Pierre Poilievre?

David Akin, Chief Political Correspondent: Yeah, I think he does actually, that’s my feeling. But I’ll be the old…I am the old guy here on the panel so I’ll play that part—Jack Layton withdrew support of Paul Martin’s minority in 2006 and it was on health care. What do we have happen today, right? Jagmeet Singh signalling that, but you know what? Jack Layton withdrew support and in came 10 years of the Harper government. But you know what? Jack Layton and Stephen Harper, they got along pretty well during the minority years. Layton got a lot of stuff done with a Conservative. Now I’ll look for more election-y speculation when I see the possibility that Jagmeet Singh and Pierre Poilievre can come to some agreements to support a potential minority, because the Conservatives need strong New Democrats to beat Liberals in downtown Toronto, in some key B.C. ridings, and without New Democrats, and they’ve been a little weak at the margins, it’s to the Liberal advantage. So that’s the landscape I’m looking at, but I just think back to how it was in ’06 when Layton said that’s it, I’m pulling the plug on a very long in the tooth Liberal government, when those conditions might exist this time around then I’ll be more inclined. But until then, yeah I think Trudeau wants to go at Mr. Poilievre. 

Mercedes Stephenson: What’s your thinking on this, Amanda?

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Amanda Connolly, National Online Managing Editor: Yeah, you know I think that that election kind of on the road angle there between Trudeau and Poilievre will certainly be fascinating. I’m not in the camp that sees one coming up in the next year here, maybe 2024, maybe pushing it there longer there into the year. For me the big thing, I think, is going to be watching the inflation rate, watching interest rates. There is a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of financial pain and economic pain in families right now and particularly with incumbent governments, where is the direction that frustration going to go, straight at Parliament Hill, straight at the Liberals. Unless they have a plan to deal with that or it comes down and that pain eases, I don’t think they’re going to risk it.

Mercedes Stephenson: I think that’s great insight, Amanda, and all of you. We appreciate you coming and sharing your thoughts on the big stories for 2023 and for the last year. We will be back here, of course, again I’m sure, soon, talking about these very issues.

Up next, we’ll play back one of our top interviews from the past year with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and the dire situation that her country continues to face on this Christmas Day.

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: “I think that the major spirit in Ukraine is that there is no way to surrender. There is only [a] way to victory.” 
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Mercedes Stephenson: Russia’s war in Ukraine dominated international news in 2022. What Russian President Vladimir Putin was hoping would be a quick victory has been anything but.

Ukraine, under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has not wavered in its efforts to defend its territory.  

Despite suffering major setbacks on the ground, Putin continues to target Ukraine’s power grid and other critical infrastructure.

Western allies, including Canada, have rallied behind Ukraine and that was very much the focus at the Halifax International Security Forum I attended last month. I sat down there with Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna and here is that conversation.

Mercedes Stephenson: Can you describe for us what the situation is like right now for the people of Ukraine?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, we got used to, to live in darkness, both being affected severely by multiple crimes committed against people, but also the first thing I noticed when I landed to Montreal is that there’s so much light around you. This is not what we have. But I think that what is more important is the spirit. This is the spirit which cannot be undermined by any measures of demoralization Russia tries to put on Ukraine, whether it’s destroying critical infrastructure, attacking residential buildings, massive torturing of population in the occupied areas, or any failure on the battlefield, which forces them to use the hybrid warfare as a major method of their aggression. So, I think that the major spirit in Ukraine is that there is no way to surrender. There’s only a way to victory and this leads to a permanent failure of Russian federation, although, of course, the suffering and the losses among population are really, really serious.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And you talked about that lack of light. It’s powerful because we take here for granted, you’re right, the street lights are on. Our power grids are going. Ukraine, like Canada, is a cold country in the winter, and the Russians are attacking your power, your energy. That is such a danger for the civilian population. How do you deal with that?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, I think that the most important thing that we have not been dealing with that only by ourselves. After the first massive shelling, counting around 90 rockets like four weeks ago and the shelling are taking place on a weekly basis with the same massive missile attacks for all the area of Ukraine. We have not been standing alone. As [the] president, already said publicly, it’s around 40 per cent of the elements of the critical infrastructure throughout the Ukraine, mostly the central part of Ukraine which is not affected by military warfare, has been damaged and it’s really important that we are restoring back the infrastructure in a very fast and a prioritized way. Basically all our technicians are also the heroes, apart from the fact that they are not with a gun on a battlefield, but it would not be possible without a strong mobilization from our partners across European Union and a wider group of allies. But it’s also a very important sign that Russians have also failed to attack Ukrainian elements of the critical infrastructure through hybrid or cyber-attacks. This has left no room for them but to try to physically destroy what we have.

Mercedes Stephenson: What does Ukraine need right now from the West and from countries like Canada? What can we do?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: In terms of supporting the restoration of the electricity grids, of course we have shared the list of our needs and we encourage the companies operating in the electricity market to mobilize their efforts, to provide us with everything which is needed. This is a very precise list of technical needs. Of course, we all need generators and the more generators that we have, the better. It could ensure the security and stability of the networks. It can ensure the stability of the light in the residential buildings, but it also can ensure the stability of functioning of the state itself, because connection and electricity and energy are the basis of functioning of the country itself. So making sure that we have enough generators and we have enough technical elements which we need to make sure that we can address and be resilient over this attack is important. But, it’s not as important as the ability to close the sky and to save our people, to save our lives and to save our infrastructure. We need more anti-air defence systems, which would enable us to restore the damaged infrastructure, to regain the sustainable reconstruction throughout the war and to make sure that we save the lives of our people.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Do you feel that NATO countries are willing to give that to you? Are they listening?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, they are. They are. There’s been a significant breakthrough I would say in terms of providing Ukraine with anti-air defence means, let’s say, from various countries, even from those countries like Spain, which has not been there before the first massive shelling. But this is the time where we should go beyond what we can, and that what we are doing on a daily basis in Ukraine, whether it’s about military and Armed Forces of Ukraine, whether it’s about there’s people providing humanitarian assistance, or politicians and ministers who are doing everything possible to go beyond any measures and beyond any boxes. So if some of the allies still think that they’ve done everything they could, we assure you that you didn’t, because the war is lasting, people are dying and the families and losing their loved ones.

Mercedes Stephenson: Why do you think the Ukrainian military has been so successful? All the experts I talk to behind the scenes back in February said this would be over within 48 to 72 hours and instead, Ukraine has not only put up an incredible defence but pushed Russia back in many places. Why do you think that is that you’ve been so much more successful than people were expecting?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: I can do the same comparison to our president. You know, Ukrainian president has been a revelation to many of the European leaders. His determination, his commitment, the very fact that he stayed in his office from the minute one of the—all the shelling and everybody was asking me what would you say for that? And my answer was, is that it is you who came to know [a] president like that and he has always been like that. This is—the same goes for Ukrainians.
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Mercedes Stephenson: Are you worried about the potential for a nuclear strike?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Of course we are and we’re extremely worried of the fact that this nuclear threat could be materialized through a massive provocation on the Ukrainian nuclear objects like the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, like Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Russians would never act bluntly by simply shelling the nuclear bomb to Kyiv. They would do the hybrid methods and for us it’s really important that first, international partners and leaders would have the equal reaction to any nuclear blackmail or nuclear threat which will be posed by Russia, even if it’s done through using Ukrainian nuclear objects like the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. But from the other hand, we understand that this nuclear threat will be hanging over all of us. Regardless of the fact whether we react strongly or not strongly, there will be such a threat. As long as Putin is in power, as long as the war is there, as long as Russia has any hunger for any aggression, whether in Ukraine or Poland or any other country around the world, this threat will be there. The thing is what we are doing. If we are acting in a way that we do not want to irritate Russia, this nuclear threat will always be there and this hunger for being unpunished will always be there. So we anyway, call upon action to stop Russia, to end the war and we should do it fast. We should do it in a coordinated way and I think that it is us, Ukraine and partners, who should make the decision when the war is over, not the Russians.

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Mercedes Stephenson: And how do you make that decision?

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Well, it’s absolutely clear at this stage. The president of Ukraine has announced the 10 points of the peaceful plan, whereas the negotiations are only one of the points. And I think that everybody should stick to this understanding that this is a concentrated set of actions needed to be done. On the Ukrainian side, we will be moving on each of these points. This is the implementation of the [00:09:20 accommodations on the elimination of the nuclear threat, restoration of the grid corridor, exchange of all prisoners of war, bringing Russia to justice, then negotiations and then security guarantees to Ukraine. So these are the key elements we will be moving towards regardless of any developments and we hope that the partners will be sticking together with us. And then this will be the situation when we will be holding the file of the victory.

Mercedes Stephenson: Deputy prime minister, thank you so much for joining us today.

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you. Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, as we look ahead to a new year, some final thoughts on 2022.

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Mercedes Stephenson: We have witnessed a remarkable year in 2022, one that I’ve been fortunate to cover on the ground, filled with events that transformed our country, our politics and the world.

It started with the anger and protest of the convoy, right here in Ottawa that saw our capital transformed, revealing cracks and divisions in our society.

We were then immediately faced with a land war in Europe and we deployed The West Block to witness the bravery and valour of Ukrainians. We were also reminded that the greatest victims of war are also the most vulnerable.

At home, the face of politics changed with Pierre Poilievre’s massive win to become the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and Premier Danielle Smith’s victory in Alberta.

And we marked the passing of the Queen, Canada’s longest reigning sovereign.

We appreciate you joining us on this journey, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the small but mighty team who you don’t see with me on the air, but they are the people who get me to air and I appreciate them, especially producers Bernadette Vanneste, David Baxter, Jillian Piper, Bryan Mullan; our editors: Frank Boldt, David de la Harpe and Diane Hagemeyer; and Luigi Della Penta, one of our cameramen here as well as Sarah Skryszak, my makeup artist who makes me look like this.

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I’d also like to thank our director Clint Barradell and the rest of the amazing Edmonton team. This is a cross-country effort to put The West Block together.

From all of us here to you, Merry Christmas, happy holidays and we’ll see you in the new year.

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